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History of wartime 'rape camp' in Bosnia wiped from town's collective memory

A hallway in Vilina Vlas is seen in the town of Visegrad, in the eastern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, on March 10, 2018. (Mainichi)

VISEGRAD, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- About a 5-minute drive from the center of this town in Bosnia and Herzegovina's northeast is the hotel Vilina Vlas, with a dark past from the Bosnian War (1992-1995) that the Serb-led Republika Srpska is trying to scrub from history.

Surrounded by forest and hills, roughly 200 Bosniak women were imprisoned in Vilina Vlas by Serbian forces during the war, where they were repeatedly sexually assaulted and then murdered. Among Bosniaks, the hotel is known as a "rape camp." However, after the war ended, the building went back to being a hotel as the town came under the control of the Serb-led autonomous government of Republika Srpska.

When visiting the hotel in mid-March this year, the outside of the hotel had been repainted, but otherwise the building was unchanged. According to an NGO, not even the frames of the beds where the rapes took place have been replaced.

Visegrad itself is famous for the UNESCO World Heritage Site Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge, built when the town was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Many tourists now visit Visegrad to see it. The majority of the license plates of the cars parked in the Vilina Vlas lot bore numbers from the neighboring countries of Serbia and Montenegro. The hotel was 80 percent booked, and around 30 elderly visitors were enjoying the hotel pool filled with water from a nearby hot spring.

Because of Visegrad's location by the Serbian border, it was the center of thorough "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbian army from the very start of the conflict. It is estimated that roughly 3,000 Bosniaks were killed there.

Before the war, the town's population was over 60 percent Bosniak. Now, Bosniaks account for less than 10 percent of the population, and Serbians nearly 90 percent. Even though the war crimes committed at Vilina Vlas were recognized by a U.N. specialist committee, because the Serbian residents strongly reject the claim, a "memory" of Visegrad during the war completely different from the international community's has taken root throughout the town.

"I have never heard of war crimes happening in Vilina Vlas," said 79-year-old Rajka Jovanovic. "I think this town had no problems during the war." Nanad Simic, a 35-year-old river sightseeing boat guide, insisted, "That hotel was used as hospital. I heard many Serbs soldiers who were wounded in the war were taken there and got treatment," and dismissed the U.N. report as "false information."

Taking a ride on Simic's sightseeing boat, I wondered if the smiling tourists from Western Europe had any idea of what had happened here during the Bosnian War as they took commemorative photos. Simic expounded on the beauty of the famous bridge, not once mentioning anything of the conflict. When I requested comment from the Visegrad town government about war crimes, I did not receive a response.

Meanwhile, Bosniak Amela Mectuseyac, 45, who was raped here by Serbian soldiers, has a different view of her home town.

"When someone says Visegrad, I can only think of what happened during the '90s. What my life was like before that time, I just forgot," she said. Amela is still troubled by the difference in the "recollection" of what happened during the war between her and the Serbs. What should have been joyful recollections of her childhood home have been stolen by the violence of the war.

"Whatever happened before, I just don't remember -- I don't recall anymore," lamented Amela. "Many beautiful things happened up until 1992, but when I think about Visegrad, I only think about 1992 and after."

(Japanese original by Koji Miki, Vienna Bureau)

This is part three in a four-part series.

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